The Iraq Fiasco: British & Dutch Social Liberals apply their commitment to Rule of International Law

Ever since Cobden & Bright, British Liberals have been keen supporters of using peaceful means like Arbitration and International Law for the settlements of disputes. When Gladstone brought forward the Ottoman repression of the Bulgarians, criticized the imperialism of Disraeli’s Afghan and Zulu Wars, and launched “6 right principles”, he brought Human Rights and equality of nations into international politics. Many Liberals supported the League of Nations Union and its predecessors.

Dutch Liberalism, especially the Social-Liberal, cosmopolitan kind, has always cherished the International Law tradition of Grotius. Professor Van Vollenhoven in 1910 advocated a World Court reinforcing its verdict by way of an International Navy, and educated and inspired many social-liberal VDB thinkers and parliamentarians; Leiden University called its institute on International Law & Governance after him. The VDB believed in the League of Nations as a first step to an international legal world order and institutional arbitration, as opposed to militarism.

Jo Grimond was (in his book “The Liberal Future”, 1959) critical of the failings and shortcomings of the UN, but nevertheless thought it far superior to a world without it. And D66, the Dutch social liberal party stepping in the VDB/Grotius tradition, has made exactly the same points from its beginning in 1966.

So it is no coincidence that when Blair & Bush prepared and jumped into their Iraq invasion, the LibDems came out in protest, and D66 from 2003 criticized the Balkenende rump government (CDA/VVD) of March 2003 for its “political support” of that ill-conceived and badly documented endeavor. When D66 entered the second Balkenende coalition, summer 2003, this Iraq point was kept out of the coalition agreement: D66 insisted on freedom to continue its criticism. D66 never believed the “dodgy dossier” claims about Saddams threat to international security, and insisted the invasion, by circumventing the UN, was an “illegal war”. It soon became clear that there had been no “post-Saddam situation” planning, and that even the British, who had helped create the Iraqi state in 1919, imposing a foreign Sunni king, Faisal, couldn’t prevent the Shia-Sunni rivalry from turning bloody, and antagonized the Shiites in Basra. This led to both D66 and the LibDems increasing their demands for official inquiries how “we got into this mess in the first place”. The Blair/Brown Labour governments resisted most of this until launching Chilcot in 2009-‘10; Nick Clegg was among the politicians criticizing the composition and remit of the Chilcot Inquiry.

In the Netherlands, the fourth Balkenende coalition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Balkenende_cabinet ; christian democrats & Dutch Labour, 2007-2010), after resisting calls for inquiry, succumbed when in 2009 an internal Foreign Office memo from 2003 leaked out, questioning the legal underpinning for the Iraq invasion and thus the Dutch political support for it. The inquiry by the Davids commission reported in 2010, affirming the shaky legal underpinning, pointing out that juridical and intelligence doubts and comments had been withheld from both ministers and parliament, and that prime minister Balkenende had shown weak leadership in the political debates about the invasion. It resulted in the rule that advice from International Law experts will be sought about any support to foreign interventions, especially when no UN Security Council Resolution could be achieved.

In his submission to the Chilcot Inquiry, professor Philippe Sands QC specifically cited the conclusions of the Dutch Davids inquiry, deploring that whereas ex-judge Davids had four lawyers (himself included) in his seven man team, Chilcot had none.

So even though the Dutch contribution to the Iraq invasion and occupation was marginal, the Dutch Social Liberals (D66) consistently shared and supported the Liberal Democrat’s criticism and demands for clarification and inquiries about the whole Iraq effort of London and Washington.

Both LibDems and D66 proudly and consistently place themselves in- and stand for the tradition of Liberal Internationalism (pioneered by Gladstone and Van Vollenhove), with priority to international Rule of Law and Human Rights, both on a European and on a global level. The Iraq controversy shows we practice what we preach.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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3 Comments

  • Stevan Rose 12th Jul '16 - 9:02pm

    You’ve sort of skipped 1880 to 1881, the 1st Boer War, Gladstone (since you brought him up), and 1914 to 1918, Asquith and Lloyd George, the latter period possibly the most avoidable major conflict in history. You mentioned 1919 and the flawed founding of modern Iraq, British PM Lloyd George (Liberal). In the anxiety to score political points arising from Chilcott there seems to be some selective recall going on of late.

  • In the First Boer War, Gladstone took a conciliatory stance and it was an extremely short war.

    “As to 1914 to 1918, Asquith and Lloyd George, the latter period possibly the most avoidable major conflict in history” I’m glad you use the term ‘possibly’, but the ‘Sleepwalkers theory’ advanced by Clark has been pretty well demolished by Gary Sheffield and Fritz Fischer. Once the Germans gave unconditional support to Austria against Serbia and had invaded Belgium the majority of modern scholars accept war was inevitable.

  • Bernard Aris 13th Jul '16 - 12:43pm

    I never said Gladstone or anybody else was or is infallible.

    The Dutch know next to nothing about the First Boer War (we were having a tough colonial war in Aceh/Atjeh from 1878 untill around 1904); the only Boer War any Dutchman knows about is the second one where our prime minister Kuyper used plenty of sound an fury in sympathy with the Boers (his co-religionists), but did nothing practical to help them.
    As to Lloyd George, I sympathise with his internal politics in the UK, but have never liked his foreign policies. Asquith was bound by the Belgian separation Treaty of the 1830’s to intervene once Belgium was invaded; Belgium had a liberal constitution (parliamentary control over the King) long before anybody in the rest of Europe did.

    And in general, it is not unusual for politicians with long careers to pronounce admirable things at one moment (JF Kennedy’s Inaugural) and do terrible things the next (Bay of Pigs with Mafia connections; condoning Diem dictatorship in South Vietnam).

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